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Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 卍 (Quicksand)

This was the last of Tanizaki’s major novels to be translated into English because of the difficulty in getting Tanizaki’s right tone in English. I am not competent to judge whether the translator has succeeded but it does seem to work very well. The story is told by Sonoko Kakiuchi to the author of the book. We soon learn that she is a widow but not a particularly grieving one. Indeed, she tells us very early on that she had had an affair and the author comments The widow Kakiuchi seemed unaffected by her recent ordeal. Her husband had studied German law but did not want to be a lawyer but an academic. He ha been supported by Sonoko’s parents, who had considered him an ideal match for their daughter. However, for various reasons, possibly guilt at being supported by his in-laws, he did open a law practice. He had very little business but still went into town every day and Sonoko eventually started to accompany him to go and study painting at the Women’s Arts Academy (a third-rate private school).

During her classes, the director of the school came to look at the students’ paintings and was highly critical of Sonoko’s work, saying that the painting did not resemble the model she was supposed to be painting. Sonoko defended herself, saying that she was trying to paint an ideal rather than a faithful representation of the life model but the director remained critical. Soon after, a rumour started, saying that Sonoko had made indecent advances to Mitsuko, a student in another class, and the two were too close. Sonoko had barely spoken to Mitsuko and certainly did not know her. When the rumours continued to spread – Sonoko felt sure that the director was the source – she decided to approach Mitsuko, which she did. The two women went out to lunch together and soon became close friends, further increasing the rumours. The pair continued to go out together and Sonoko painted Mitsuko, first scantily clad and then in the nude (with Sonoko almost forcing Mitsuko to undress). Though, initially, Tanizaki does not explicitly mention it, there is a very strong suggestion of a lesbian relationship and this is spelled out later in the book. Indeed, Sonoko’s husband is very much concerned about the relationship and says so on more than one occasion. The pair write to each regularly, call each other sister and seem to spend a lot of time together. Mitsuko is the daughter of rich parents and is single but her parents have someone in mind for her to marry, someone she does not want to marry.

Things suddenly go wrong when, one night, Sonoko gets a call from a strange man that Mitsuko needs help, as the pair are stuck at an inn without any clothes or money, as they appear to have been robbed. Sonoko reluctantly goes to the inn, where she meets Watanaki, Mitsuko’s boyfriend, of whose existence she had known nothing, and finds a complicated situation, which she helps resolve but which leads her to mistrust Mitsuko and break off the relationship. Sometime later, she is again implicated when Mitsuko turns up and needs her assistance, as she is seemingly pregnant and wants an abortion. Sonoko is implicated as she had lent Mitsuko an American book on contraception and abortion and the hospital, part owned by Mitsuko’s father, is reluctant to assist Mitsuko without someone taking responsibility and that someone would appear to be Sonoko. Things continue to develop and get worse, with Mitsuko and Sonoko resuming their relationship but Watanaki now playing a greater role and Sonoko’s (relatively) innocent husband the innocent victim. Indeed, the complexity of the deception and the way in which the more innocent participants allow themselves to be dragged into this murky plot is a tribute to Tanazaki’s skill. However let us not forget that the story is narrated by Sonoko, after the death of her husband to the author, and given her behaviour, there is no reason to suspect that she is anything but an unreliable narrator.

Like many novels, this novel is concerned with pointing out that finding out the truth in any human situation is often not straightforward and depends on perspective. The novel was originally published in serial form, so Tanizaki’s style is to leave us hanging at the end of a chapter, thinking that one person is to blame for what went wrong, only to discover in the next episode that there is an entirely different perspective. However, as well as the issue of what is truth?, the erotic nature of the novel is what has made its fame and, while relatively tame by our standards, it is still a stunning and erotic account of a seemingly happily married woman falling in love with another woman. Mitsuko is the type of character who is not a stranger to Japanese literature and, indeed, to Tanizaki’s work. She is beautiful and alluring but selfish, deceitful and without scruples. However, none of the four main characters come out of this particularly well, either the deceivers or the deceived, who, for us, seem quite naive. Indeed, Mitsuko seems to be something of a drug for Sonoko. There is no doubt that this novel is one of Tanizaki’s major novels, even if somewhat different from his other novels.

Publishing history

First published by Kaizōsha in 1930
First English translation by Knopf in 1993